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Now that the gloomiest chapter of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences budget crisis is done, we are beginning to understand how severe the situation was. Two years ago, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith held a Town Hall meeting, during which he described a “sizable and somewhat daunting challenge”—a projected budget deficit of $220 million dollars in the 2010-2011 academic year. In the 2010 Dean’s Annual Report, that figure was repeatedly called “crushing,” revealing the despair behind Smith’s apparent calm.
Indeed, the period after the deficit was announced was a tough one for the Harvard community. Many of the budget cuts made were painful, including freezing the salaries of faculty and nonunion staff members, mass layoffs of staff members and providing retirement incentives for others to retire, curtailing searches for new faculty from 50 to 21, and reducing capital spending. Additionally, Smith asked departments and centers to pare down their budgets by 15 percent for the 2009-2010 academic year.
Dean Smith encountered a significant amount of criticism in the community when these cuts were made. As reported in The Boston Globe, Government Professor Theda Skocpol said, “Harvard’s relative standing among the major universities will suffer.” In the same article, Professor of African-American music Ingrid Monson—and interim FAS dean—was quoted as saying, “Everyone is worried here that no matter what they say, the level of cuts that are required threatens to change the character of this institution.’’ The New York Times education section even pronounced that “the euphoria of fall in Harvard Yard is dampened.”
The Crimson itself did not agree with most of these cuts when they were made. Of the retirement incentives, we said: “While cost-cutting measures are certainly necessary given the FAS financial situation, trimming the faculty to decrease costs harms a central mission of the University to maintain the highest standard of education possible.” Of the faculty hiring slowdown we said that “impeding the College’s flow of intellectual resources is an unwise compromise.”
And yet, it is a tremendous relief to see that the projected deficit this academic year is only $35 million. This is an extraordinary feat. FAS is certainly in a much better place financially than it was three years ago, and it is certainly due to the combined effect of the tough decisions Dean Smith relayed. We praise him for handling the budget to the extent that he has and for accomplishing the majority of FAS's goal, despite the backlash to budget cuts.
Despite all these accomplishments, however, it's a good time to look back at the entirety of FAS's decisions. This was the first time in recent years that the administration encountered an economic crisis of this magnitude, and the correct path wasn't always clear. Nevertheless, moving forward, it should be evident now that clear-cut academic interests should never be jeopardized in favor of administrative ones. This was not always the case in this present budget crisis. For example, centralization of Harvard’s various small academic centers and departments never happened, although it was talked about extensively. Harvard is an academic institution, and its longevity depends on the protection of academic interests.
Moving forward, we hope Harvard will analyze the long-term effects of its budget cuts as it enters the future. The full effect of the faculty hiring slowdown or the bulk of retirements can only be determined in the future, when the health of the affected academic departments are examined over time. Still, handling a $35 million deficit is better than handling a $220 one, and, for this, we can be thankful.
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